An ecological economist takes to the pitch to campaign against HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic.

Credit: Richard Bernardin

Far from Jon Erickson’s office at the University of Vermont, a dusty, rock-strewn soccer field beckons. The field lies at the heart of an impoverished community of Haitian laborers in the Dominican Republic, and has become part of the nation’s campaign against HIV/AIDS. For Erickson, a 36-year-old ecological economist, the soccer field is a focal point of his new research. For the local futbolistas, it’s an escape.

Interviewed by Lindsay Borthwick

What first attracted you to the field of ecological economics?
In grad school at Cornell, I studied agricultural sciences and also took courses in economics. I couldn’t get over how diametrically opposed the two disciplines were&emdash;the ecological worldview and the economics worldview. I began to look for ways to bring these worldviews together.

Yes, I’ve heard ecological economics called a “transdiscipline.” How do you usually describe it?
As a science that has a huge toolbox. In traditional economics, you’re taught a certain set of tools and expected to run around and apply them to all problems that you’re studying. We flip that on its head. We go out and work with all disciplines and bring the appropriate voices to the table to solve problems.

How does this relate to the work you’re doing on HIV/AIDS education in the Dominican Republic?
It made sense to me as an ecological economist because HIV/AIDS is restructuring economies worldwide…but it’s also an example of the problem-solving approach. HIV/AIDS is the major economic, environmental and social threat to the fabric of the island of Hispaniola. One way of addressing that is through youth education and empowerment, one way to get youth excited about health-education is through a sport they love, and Haitians love soccer. Soccer has become the vehicle for a health-education program that is now spreading throughout the island.

That was the first Grassroot Soccer program outside Africa, was it not?
Yes. In January 2005, my wife and I took a group of students down to the Dominican to work with a community of Haitian migrant workers called Batey Libertad. We partnered with an organization called Grassroot Soccer, which is involved in HIV/AIDS education. It’s really blossomed since then. We’re scaling up the program so that the Grassroot Soccer HIV/AIDS curriculum becomes an asset to the country.

So you have the Dominican government’s support?
We’re working with the Presidential Commission Against AIDS, and we have about a half-dozen other NGOs involved.

How does the program work?
It’s a brilliant curriculum that involves a series of games, role-playing exercises and sporting drills that are used as ice-breakers to introduce what are traditionally very sensitive topics. So it provides a fun, safe environment for the kids to ask tough questions…At first, we charged the University of Vermont (UVM) students with teaching the curriculum. Now youths from Batey Libertad have become trainers and gone on to teach in other communities. 

How has this experience influenced your research?
Well, my wife and I both have sabbaticals next year. We hope to make some more short trips there this summer and fall, then actually live there for six months. We’re going to continue our work with Batey Libertad, assist in the island-wide roll out of the Grassroot Soccer curriculum and also do some research on the social, economic and environmental precursors to infectious disease outbreaks. Unfortunately, the contrast between Haiti and the Dominican Republic makes a really compelling story of what those precursors are. It’s a story, in fact, that Jared Diamond uses in his most recent book, Collapse, to illustrate the environmental side of this. In Haiti, the island is all but 1% deforested. On the Dominican side of Hispaniola, that number is around 30%. This has led to dramatically different environmental conditions that have led to dramatically different economic and social opportunities.

That’s a drastic difference.
Quite. From the air you can see the border between the two countries because of the deforestation…

...Literally a land of contrasts.
Yeah, Hispaniola is like a microcosm of the rest of the world: the racial tensions, migration issues, worker rights issues, environmental degradation, infectious disease burden. It’s got it all. It’s an intense couple-week experience for me and the UVM students. Usually by the end of a trip, each student has broken down into tears, vowed to change their lives when they make it back to the US and have since changed their major or direction!

It sounds as though Batey Libertad really takes a hold.
Indeed. I find that I spend my nights and weekends e-mailing and calling down there, troubleshooting…For me and my wife, it’s become “applied” for us to the nth degree.

Originally published July 9, 2006

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